Elections '88 : ORANGE COUNTY : Democrat Wages Uphill Fight for 40th District Seat : Experts See Great Opportunity for Cox

Times Staff Writer

Like the auto racer he once dreamed of becoming, C. Christopher Cox steered his campaign around an early 14-candidate pileup in the Republican primary in the 40th Congressional District last June to win the GOP nomination.

By contrast, Cox's Nov. 8 general election race against Democrat Lida Campbell Lenney for the seat of retiring Rep. Robert E. Badham is looking like a drive through the park, given the district's 59%-to-30% Republican edge in voter registration.

So far, the 35-year-old lawyer has proved that he can raise money (nearly $700,000 for the primary alone) and that he has connections in Washington (he was senior associate White House counsel for two years during the Reagan Administration and received primary election endorsements from Robert H. Bork and Oliver L. North, who also appeared in Orange County on his behalf).

What's left to determine, political observers say, is whether Cox can build a potent political base in one of the safest Republican congressional seats in the nation. Although Cox won the Republican primary in his first try at elective office, he did it with just 31% of the Republican vote--in a primary in which 56% of the eligible Republicans voted.

Harvey Englander, a Newport Beach-based political consultant, said Cox "has a great opportunity, and I hope he recognizes it."

"Because he has a safe district and never has to worry about real defeat, he has got some tremendous opportunities that, unfortunately, I've seen too many people in safe seats squander," Englander said. "He has the opportunity to be creative. He has the opportunity to do things for his district and the country and to take risks that most people--who don't have that kind of safe district--just can't do."

Some political observers attributed Cox's victory in the primary to his ability to attract the district's more conservative Republicans.

"You had (Nathan) Rosenberg and David Baker fighting for the moderate wing of the party, and Chris had the conservatives out there all by himself," said Englander, who has worked with candidates of both parties but who has not been involved in the 40th District race this year. "In addition, he did a terrific job of raising money."

Supported by Rosenberg

Rosenberg, who finished third in the primary, now describes himself as a strong Cox supporter. Rosenberg said his pre-primary polling suggested that most of the Republicans in Orange County, while favoring traditional party banners of strong defense and a balanced budget, are not opposed to some federal financing of social programs, such as helping the homeless or AIDS patients.

"Chris had a strategy, and I think a valid strategy, that no one was going to get to the right of him (in the primary)," Rosenberg said. While noting that voters on the extremes tend to vote more heavily in primaries, Rosenberg added, "I think that having won the nomination, he's now going to have to be willing to listen to others in the district because he's going to have to represent others in the district."

Rosenberg said he thinks Cox can do that. "I think the Chris Cox we see in Washington will be a different Chris Cox than we saw on the stump from February to June. I think Chris is a guy who is a lot more interested in accomplishment and achievement than he is in strong ideological statement."

To fully establish himself as a political force, Rosenberg said, Cox must tend to local concerns. "As far as I was concerned, he was the most intelligent of the 14 (Republican) candidates," Rosenberg said. "Clearly, he's a hard worker, and the question is: Where does that intelligence--and that hard work--get put? He doesn't have a base in this district. If you look at who put his campaign together, it wasn't people in this district. Three-quarters of his steering committee came from east of the Mississippi."

Cox, who turns 36 in two weeks, grew up in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minn., but moved to the West Coast to attend USC, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English and political science. He also graduated from Harvard Law School and in 1978 joined the Los Angeles law firm of Latham & Watkins.

He lived in Newport Beach until 1986, when he left the law firm to serve as senior associate counsel to Reagan in Washington. He moved back to Newport Beach earlier this year to run for Congress. While living in Newport Beach in 1984, Cox launched a company that prints an English-language version of Pravda, the official Soviet Communist Party newspaper, so that Americans can know what imformation is being disseminated to Soviet citizens by the government in Moscow.

In an interview with The Times, Cox shied away from linking himself to the party's right wing.

"I don't like being identified with a wing because it suggests you're not in the fuselage," he said. "I think when Ronald Reagan gets 75% of the vote in my district and gets 60% nationwide, that suggests that he is defining the political mainstream. He's not out on some wing; he's articulated what people believe and what they want done. I'd like to do that."

When asked if he could support a defense budget without an overall dollar increase in the next fiscal year, Cox said, "I didn't talk about increasing the defense budget (during the primary). I talked about many things, but that was not one of the things I talked about."

Cox said a tax increase to reduce the deficit would trigger a recession that "will kill us." The solution to the deficit, he said, lies in further spending cuts. He generally opposes federal subsidies for either health care or child care programs, but said he is not opposed to offering people tax incentives.

Cox supports further spending on the Strategic Defense Initiative, aid to the Contras in Nicaragua and continued talks with the Soviet Union on mutual nuclear arms reduction. On the issue of school prayer, he favors a voluntary "moment of silence." And he said he believes "there's no reason in the world why the Pledge of Allegiance ought not be a part of a public school curriculum. They might as well learn it along with the multiplication tables."

Of his primary campaign, Cox said: "I very freely attached labels to myself during the primary because it was a multicandidate primary. I needed to go after a target market segment, and you must differentiate yourself from other Republicans in a primary. Unfortunately, in a congressional primary the opportunity to have reasoned discourse on any subject is zero.

"We had forums of 14 people where, of necessity, you had 30 seconds to respond to a question. How are you going to solve the deficit in 30 seconds? So it tends to be a real simplistic kind of approach. What I wanted to make sure of was that people understood I was going to be conservative, whatever that meant."

Cox's brand of conservatism doesn't automatically preclude federal spending for social programs. For example, he favors continued spending on AIDS research. And he said he wouldn't rule out a federal role in areas such as providing aid to the homeless, child-care or health care.

"My concern is with the lack of imagination by those who always look to the federal government. My view is that it (federal intervention) is a last resort when individuals, organizations and local and state levels of government are unable to solve a problem. Then, and only then, ought the federal government butt in. That leaves room for the federal government to get involved in any number of problems, but only after exploring other avenues first."

Cox said his first priority, if elected, will be setting up a staff to handle constituent problems. That will take "a good part of 1989," he said. He has twin legislative interests for the district, he said: the continued securing of federal funds for the already-approved Santa Ana River flood control project and getting block-grant money for the county to spend on solutions to transportation problems. Cox wants to tap the federal Highway Trust Fund for the latter, saying a few billion dollars from the fund each year goes unspent.

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